by Peter Berg
Today is Ascension Day—that one day a year when the Church around the world remembers and celebrates the story of Acts 1:6-11, where Jesus is taken bodily into heaven, while his disciples watch intently. Ascension Day is a principle feast; that means it takes precedent over all other feasts or events that could happen that day. In other words, it’s a big deal.
If we’re honest, however, I think many of us are thinking “Really? Is the ascension that big of a deal?” We understand Christmas and Easter, even Pentecost, but we do not really understand why the ascension ranks with those celebrations. Though dramatic, Jesus’ rising into heaven seems simplistic; it is easy to see it as the quick little epilogue at the end of his earthly life, put there merely to explain why he’s not around anymore.
Personally, I’ve been blessed to have time to study the ascension more deeply, and I have come to greatly value this event. For me, two main ideas stand out that help to make it so important: 1) The Ascension is about Christ our King, 2) The Ascension is about Christian mission.
Christ our King
The first and foremost purpose of the ascension is to show us that Jesus Christ is now the King of kings and Lord of lords. We see this clearly in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. There, in 1:19-23, Paul, while praying for the church in Ephesus, asks that they may come to understand God’s great power, that same power that God “20 worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, 21 far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. 22 And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.”
When Paul says that God seated Christ “at his right hand in the heavenly places” he is talking about the ascension. And, with Christ at God’s right hand, he is above all rule, authority, power, dominion. He is above all things, and everything is under his feet. Christ is the King of all things—nothing stands outside of his rule.
Paul and the early church came to understand the Ascension in this way, as the story of Christ’s enthronement, because they understood it to be the fulfillment of an Old Testament passage that was very important to them—Daniel 7:13-14. It says:
13 “I saw in the night visions,
and behold, with the clouds of heaven
there came one like a son of man,
and he came to the Ancient of Days
and was presented before him.
14 And to him was given dominion
and glory and a kingdom,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
should serve him;
his dominion is an everlasting dominion,
which shall not pass away,
and his kingdom one
that shall not be destroyed.
The early church believed that when Jesus, the Son of Man, was lifted into heaven, surrounded by clouds, he was literally and completely fulfilling this passage. Jesus was now the King with an everlasting dominion and indestructible kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve.
So, the first reason we celebrate the ascension is that we stand in awe that we get to love, worship, and serve this matchless King.
The Ascension and Our Mission
Secondarily, but still hugely important when we think about the ascension, is that it is about Christian mission. The ascension explains both the reason for and the strength behind our work in the world.
Matthew’s Gospel ends just before recording the ascension, but it still strikes all the same notes. On a mountain in Galilee, Jesus appears to his disciples, who worship him. Then he says to them “ All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” This is completely in agreement with the main theme of the ascension discussed above—that Jesus is the King of kings.
Importantly, Jesus moves from his authority to his disciples’ mission. He says “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” Because Jesus has all authority, the disciples are to go and make disciples of all nations. Because Jesus is the King, we are to reach out to others, making more followers for our Lord. Not only that, but because Jesus is King, we have the power to do as he says. We are not trying to reach the world under our own strength, but with the very strength and power of the world’s true King.
So, the second reason we celebrate the ascension is that it speaks into who we really are—we are saved servants of the King, reaching out to the world, serving others, through his power.
Together, these two important themes of the ascension strengthen and support key aspects of our faith—the identity and ongoing work of Christ (he is even now reigning as King) and our mission (we serve the King through his power).